Where are Africa’s young leaders?

The world of policymaking still largely remains the preserve of the elders.


The statistics on Africa’s youth bulge are well known. It is the world’s youngest continent, with more than half its 1.1bn-strong population under the age of 25.

This statistic is fuelling a narrative of a demographic dividend, as mobile technology revolutionises the world of business, giving rise to a new, dynamic and success-hungry generation of entrepreneurs. Much of the debate around the future of the continent’s economies now centres on the role of this youth, with high hopes that they can take the reins and realise Africa’s much-vaunted economic potential.

While the number of young faces leading successful companies is growing, along with a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem, there is an important omission in the narrative. A youth-driven business environment is important, but needs to be met with a commensurate dynamic in policy innovation; perhaps the most important enabler of business. The world of policymaking, for now, largely remains the reserve of the elders.

At least a dozen countries went to the polls across Africa in 2015 to elect (or, contentiously re-elect) their political leaders. This includes major economies such as Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire and Ethiopia. The average age of incumbents and victors in these elections is 64. Only one comes in under 50, Togo’s Faure Gnassingbé at 49. In Nigeria, Africa’s largest and most populous economy, it has fallen to 72-year-old Muhammadu Buhari to drive the youth agenda. While not impossible, there is an obvious challenge in reconciling this generational gap at a time of rapid and transformational change in technology, which will play a major role in determining the success of Africa’s economies in the 21st century.

In short, and this is an open question, is it time to develop a policy innovation agenda for the continent – part of which is a pronounced emphasis on having younger leaders in key positions? To put it differently, where are the policypreneurs? It is a question that may need addressing at a global level too. In the UK, for example, the closest thing to a national youth leader is the new Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, 66.

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